Reported by the Zululand Observer and South Coast Sun. Two illegal mining sites were closed down, but the miners have merely moved upriver and it’s business as usual. Since the media first reported on illegal sand mining on the Illovo River nine years ago, nothing has been done about it until last week.
The river is in the most deplorable condition for a reported 18 kilometres inland from the steel bridge in Lower Illovo from the mining operations. Massive excavations, now filled with water, line the river banks that were once fertile agricultural land. The banks have been dug away to bedrock, which consists of large round stones. Piles of debris, eroding banks and a wasteland of environmental disorder greet the eye in every direction.
The media first reported on the illegal mining in 2013 when it was taken on a tour of the river. The ravaging effects the mining had already wrought on the river were evident, but it was nothing in comparison to what was seen this week. In some places, the original riverbank can be seen more than 10 metres above from where an excavator mercilessly reaches in to wrench out yet another bucket load of sand.
Barges on the river relentlessly suck up sand from the river bed. School children are forced to cross the river after the closure of the steel bridge for repairs in 2017 and sucking up the river bed sand has led to parts of the river becoming deeper and muddier. Several children from the surrounding communities have drowned in the last few years because of these big holes created by the mining operations. A road running along the river collapsed recently from being undermined.
The steel bridge was closed after the devastating effect of the continuous stream of heavy-duty sand trucks led to its disrepair. Determined the bridge’s closure would not dent their pockets, miners built an illegal crossing over the river and today it is not only still being used by the sand trucks, but also delivery companies. Lower Illovo residents have been living with the noise and danger of the trucks running day and night through their suburb, despite a petition being signed by residents and Metro Police’s promises to investigate.
In 2016 the department of water and sanitation said it was getting the High Court to interdict illegal miners and force them to rehabilitate affected rivers, and it was engaging with traditional leaders to help stop the degradation of rivers. Nothing further has come of that.
In 2014 a raid by authorities to close down illegal mines in the Illovo River had to be called off when angry residents confronted officials. Successful raids were done on the Umvoti River in the same year, however, no more raids have since been undertaken. An added concern is the negative impact sand mining has on water quality, especially in a dry country like South Africa that often suffers from severe drought.
Toti Conservancy was elated by the arrival of three environmental management inspectors (EMIs) from the National Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) in Pretoria last week to investigate illegal mining operations. Ex-chairperson of the conservancy, Laura Taylor, who has championed the cause for many years, accompanied them on a raid of the premises of two illegal mines operating close to the steel bridge.
The good news was that the DMR officials were horrified at the appalling state of the river and immediately shut down both operations. The EMIs discovered that both sites were operating without the necessary permits. Photos were taken, including of a substantial number of receipt books revealing a large number of cash transactions that had taken place on the sites daily.
“It is our understanding that proper investigations of these sites and operations will now take place, including the possibility of tax evasion,” said Taylor. According to Taylor, the two illegal sand mining operations on the Illovo River are operated by Nicole Ntuli and YC Naidoo. “Ntuli explained that the mining was being done with the permission of the local tribal authorities, who were also being paid in cash for the right to mine. She also said that another miner, a Mr Zondo, was also mining in the area.”
Trucks are being loaded from the site that was closed down by DMR officials on Tuesday, 9 July.
However, the bad news, as witnessed by the media when taken on a tour by Laura on Monday, 15 July, is that one of the miners has completely ignored the DMR’s stop order and merely moved their operation up the river. At the second illegal mining operation that was ‘shut down’, the unabated convoy of sand trucks continues.
“Further investigations revealed the trucks are now getting most of their sand from the other side of the big bend in the river, which is over the hill, hidden from view and only accessible on terrible roads. We saw Ntuli’s bakkie and container parked at the new site and it appears to be business as usual. YC Naidoo’s trucks are also running from there, which means both have simply moved sites. We also witnessed sand trucks being loaded from the site that was closed down.
“Toti Conservancy deplores the appalling state our beautiful river is now and strongly urge the DMR to bring the full force of the law against these illegal miners and whomever they are colluding with, in the wanton destruction of our natural resources.
“We believe it is possible to mine sand legally, sustainably, equitably and without the terrible environmental destruction that is currently taking place. This lawlessness cannot be allowed to continue within our communities. We and many others have been trying for years to stop it, to no avail, and this situation must stop now!
“We urge the authorities, police and local law enforcement to protect members of the public who bring these issues to light, as sand miners are notoriously aggressive in protecting their interests and this is a large part of the reason why their activities go unchecked.”
The original riverbank can be seen more than 10 metres above the river.
How it all started:
VA Isaacs Sand Suppliers, a legal mining company that has been mining the Illovo River for 44 years, applied for a closure certificate, in terms of the DMR Act, to close one of its sites in November 2018. It informed the DMR enforcement department that illegal miners had moved onto the closed site.
After not receiving any response, the company’s owner flew to Johannesburg on 18 June to request a meeting with DMR’s director of enforcement, Aubrey Tshivhandekano.
She met with Tshivhandekano the next day and on Tuesday, 9 July he and two other DMR officials visited Isaacs’ site, which they closed down after saying they did not fully comply with all of the department’s requirements. While there, Tshivhandekano saw the illegal mining operations on the go and visited both sites to issue stop orders.
The Illovo River has been destroyed from sand mining operations. Illegal mining and with no rehabilitation to the river .
What is sand mining and why is it so lucrative?
Sand mining is a practice that is used to extract sand, mainly through an open pit. However, sand is also mined from beaches, riverbanks, inland dunes and dredged from ocean and river beds. It is used in the building industry to make concrete.
The media was informed that most of the sand mined from the Illovo River is sold to blue-chip companies that aren’t aware of the origin of the sand.
Quality determines the price and the SUN was informed a truckload costs R600 (poor) to R1 200 (good) from the Illovo River. The price is so good, it has attracted trade from as far as Richards Bay and Pietermaritzburg and that is why residents complained about the high volume of trucks.
Legal miners have to pay a huge fee to government as a guarantee that they will rehabilitate the area they have mined to as close as possible before mining started. They have to restore the mining sites by planting new grass, trees and so on, however, the illegal miners don’t – they just close up the holes (or not) and move on to the next site.
The Illovo River is being raped, pillaged and killed.”
“These sand miners block the river to mine the sand and the river is being killed by their actions,” said Laura, who lives in Lower Illovo and witnesses the extent of the mining on a daily basis. “It’s amazing they have the audacity to close the river. It’s unbelievable.”
Sand is mined from the river to be sold in hardward stores as building sand. Legal mining companies are conditioned to rehabilitate the area, as per their permits. However, illegal miners leave the devastation and just move onto the next stretch of river.
“This is such a beautiful river with prolific bird life. The miners clear the bush on the banks of the river and then invasive plants take over. Hundreds of dump trucks leave the area every day, full of river sand.”
Mining operations continue for kilometres upriver. Abandoned mining sites are not rehabilitated and miners simply move on to another area further upriver. In some parts the water has been forced to a trickle, just a few metres wide. Refuse and old tyres are discarded on the riverside.
The Sun and Toti Conservancy were fortunate to meet one of the legal miners during the tour. He was willing to answer queries on condition of anonymity. According to him, only three mining companies have legal permits to mine on the Illovo River. Dozens of others simply procure a Permission to Occupy permit from the local tribal authority and start to mine, without a mining permit.
The legal miner has opened a case of theft against one of the illegal miners who is mining on his designated site, but to date no policing of the river has taken place.
The three companies have formed an association that will meet with members of the Department of Mineral Resources to air their grievances.